Lionel Messi is two matches away from living his World Cup dream. His latest test comes in the form of an in-form Croatia team in a semifinal match of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar.
Messi has scored four goals till now and has at times, carried the burden of the entire team on his shoulders. After the opening loss to Saudi Arabia, many predicted that La Albiceleste would have a quick exit, but they have powered on, with Messi being the fulcrum of the team.
Ahead of the semifinal match against Croatia, here is Messi’s Qatar World Cup campaign in pictures.
The opening day shock
Argentina started as a heavy favourite against Saudi Arabia in its opening Group C match at the Lusail Stadium. It started on a positive note after Messi converted from the spot to give an early lead to his team.
However, little did Messi know that Argentina would go on to suffer the biggest shock in their World Cup history. After Argentina started the second-half with a 1-0 lead, Saleh Alshehri and Salem Aldawsari scored two quick goals in the second-half to give Saudi Arabia a 2-1 lead.
Suddenly Argentina looked shaky, and a seemingly easy fixture against Saudi Arabia was turning out to be a nightmare for Argentina. The Albiceleste kept hounding the Saudi goal but could not find the net. Saudi Arabia scripted one of the biggest World Cup upsets after winning the match with a 2-1 scoreline.
There are no excuses. We are going to be more united than ever. This group is strong, and we have shown it. It is a situation that we haven’t gone through in a long time. Now we have to show that this is a real group.
— Messi after Argentina’s defeat against Saudi Arabia
Bouncing back in style
Argentina, which had started the World Cup as one of the tournament favourites, went into its second group game as a team lacking morale. As predicted, the spotlight was on Messi and questions were asked about his ability to deliver for his team in an hour of need. It was an excruciating first-half for Argentina because, not only did it fail to threaten the Mexico goal, but played a bland half of football.
It was in the second-half that the Lusail Stadium saw Messi wave his wand and conjure up something out of nowhere. In the 64th minute, Angel Di Maria passed the ball to Messi from the left flank. Receiving the ball with great dexterity, he shifted the ball to his left leg and launched a low shot through a sea of Mexican bodies. The shot was pure, and by the time Guillermo Ochoa anticipated the danger and dived for the ball, it had already nestled in the bottom-right corner.
Messi wasn’t done after scoring the brilliant goal. In the 87th minute, Argentina worked a short corner and Messi was quick to pass the ball to Enzo Fernandez inside the box. Fernandez had a look and curled the ball inside the net with an exquisite finesse shot. Argentina got its second goal of the match and Messi registered his first assist of the tournament.
Securing qualification at a personal cost
Argentina needed a win against Poland in its final group match to ensure a Round of 16 berth. Before the match, Poland was predicted to provide a challenge to Argentina, and again there were doubts about whether Messi and his Argentina team would be able to perform in a high-voltage must-win match.
But contrary to the predictions, Argentina sailed to a comfortable 2-0 win to qualify for the Round of 16 courtesy of second-half goals by Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez.
Messi had guided Argentina to the Round of 16, but on a personal note, it wasn’t the best match for him as the Argentina skipper missed a penalty in the 39th minute, becoming only the second player to miss two penalties at a World Cup since 1966 (excluding shootouts) after Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan.
A sublime finish against the Socceroos
Argentina faced Australia in the Round of 16. While Messi and his men started the match as favourites, they could not afford any complacency, especially after the loss to Saudi Arabia. Also, Australia had won two of its three group matches, which included a win against Denmark.
Messi started weaving his magic quite early into the match, with his trademark runs and dribbles, but it took him 35 minutes to make a significant mark in the match. Mostly operating from the deep, Messi finally ventured forward from an Argentina set-piece. Mac-Allister passed the ball to Nicolas Otamendi, whose touch set up Messi for the shot.
Once Messi had the ball, the finish came like clockwork as he curled the ball to the far corner past a diving Matt Ryan. It was a fitting goal to mark Messi’s 1000th match of his career. It was also Messi’s first knockout goal in the World Cup.
Julian Alvarez scored in the 57th minute to give Argentina a secure 2-0 lead. While Enzo Fernandez’s late own goal proved to be a bother for the Albiceleste, Argentina held on to qualify for the quarterfinals with a 2-1 win.
“We are always thrilled to play in front of these fans and it’s great to have their support every match, to feel their joy and passion.
— Messi after marking his 1000th career match with a win
The battle of Lusail
Argentina’s quarterfinal match against the Netherlands at the Lusail Stadium will be talked about for a long time, but not necessarily for all the right reasons.
Officiated by referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, the match saw 19 bookings, including yellow cards to Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni and support staff Walter Samuel.
The match had a fiery buildup. Netherlands head coach Louis Van Gaal said in his pre-match press conference that Messi did little to help his team when they did not have the ball.
Once the match started, it did not take long for Messi to show his class as he set up teammate Nahuel Molina for the first goal with arguably the assist of the tournament. In the 35th minute, Messi had the ball and found an impossible angle to thread the ball between a couple of Dutch players to send the ball to Molina, who made no mistake in slotting the ball inside the net.
After assisting the first goal, Messi himself scored from the spot to double Argentina’s lead. It was his fourth goal of this World campaign, and he is just one behind becoming the joint-top scorer with France’s Kylian Mbappe who has five.
Most predicted Argentina to qualify on regulation time but Wout Weghorst scored two late goals (the equaliser coming in the 11th minute of second-half additional time) to force the match into extra-time.
Neither team could find the net in extra-time and the match went to penalties. Argentina keeper Emiliano Martinez turned hero and made two saves early and La Albiceleste won the match 4-3 on penalties.
Once Lautaro Martinez hit the winning penalty, the entire team and support staff ran to the player to celebrate, but Messi went straight to Emi Martinez to show his appreciation for Argentina’s shootout hero.
Post-match scenes heated up as Messi confronted Van Gaal after the match.
“I feel disrespected by Van Gaal after his pregame comments, and some Dutch players spoke too much during the game,” Messi told reporters.
It has been a topsy-turvy ride for Lionel Messi and Argentina in this World Cup. If Messi wants his journey to continue, his team must find a way against a resolute Croatia team in the semifinals on Wednesday.
Another shot at glory
Argentina’s semifinal match against Croatia was supposed to be its most challenging outing of its Qatar World Cup campaign.
But Messi and his Argentina team played some of the best football they’ve played throughout the entire tournament and dominated the Croatians with a 3-0 win.
Messi opened the scoring in the 34th minute from the spot. Argentina was given a penalty after Croatia keeper Dominik Livakovic fouled Julian Alvarez.
Alvarez scored Argentina’s second after a brilliant solo run. It was Alvarez’s second goal and Argentina’s third, which brought the roof down. Messi got the ball on the right touchline and got the better of his marker Josko Gvardiol with his quick feet and blinding dribbles. He then made his way into the box, setting up Alvarez for his second goal.